Tuesday, December 3, 2013
The short stories in Kate Milliken’s “If I’d Known You Were Coming” (University of Iowa Press, 2013) are full of quirks, hard edges, sharp angles, and surprises. The characters are often confused, and confusing, but still make witty remarks and offer sharp observations. The women characters in particular are very bright but sometimes make strange decisions, often about relationships. The narrator in “Man Down Below,” for example, moves away from her apartment in order to get away from a stalker neighbor, yet when she runs into him later, is strangely drawn to him. “No, no, no!” you want to exhort her, but being a mere reader, you are helpless to change the course of the story; you cannot sway her from her clearly unsuitable feelings and actions. Some characters appear in more than one story, allowing us to get to know them better on each appearance, yet still mysteriously changing and disappearing at will. The final story, “Inheritance,” starts off uneventfully, but after a while we see how sad and sick one of the main characters is, and must watch helplessly as she self destructs, but at least is supported by her new friend in his inherited house. And somehow, even in her self-destruction, this character manages to keep and display a flash of her personality, and make us wonder if she will perhaps survive after all.
Friday, November 29, 2013
I’ve just read a lovely novel: “Someone” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), by Alice McDermott. “Lovely” is a word not commonly found in book reviews, but that is my response to this beautifully written story of an “ordinary” woman, Marie Commeford. Marie’s life is extraordinarily ordinary; it is the gift of the author to make her character’s story utterly alive, utterly compelling in its ordinariness. Marie grows up in Brooklyn early in the 20th century, the child of an Irish Catholic immigrant family. In this first person narrative, Marie tells of her family, her neighborhood and neighbors, her adolescence, her work in a funeral home, her marriage, her motherhood, and her old age. Particularly strong characters, besides Marie herself, are her mother, her brother, and her husband. Throughout Marie’s life, there are happy times, worrying times, sad times, and inconclusive times. We are immersed in Marie’s life; we live and breathe with her. To me, this making an “ordinary” woman’s life so individual, so distinct, and so compelling is what literature is all about. I was impressed by McDermott’s earlier novels, such as “That Night” and “After This”; “Someone” reaches new heights of revelatory writing.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
My colleague Brian Komei Dempster has edited two moving collections of the memories of Japanese-American internees in the United States during World War II, thus preserving this sad part of history and allowing the now-elderly survivors of this experience to tell their stories in their own words. (See my post of 6/7/11 about the second of these books). Dempster has now published a stunning collection of his own poetry, “Topaz” (Four Way Books, 2013). I started reading “Topaz” (the name of the internment camp where some of the poet’s own relatives were incarcerated) one recent evening, planning to just dip into the book for now and read it more thoroughly later, but found I could not put it down until I finished it. The poems are beautifully written and gripping. In fact, they are amazing poems, touching on so many elements of family, history, ethnicity, connection, sexuality, youth, aging, illness, spirituality, anger, reconciliation, and much more. The thread running through all these topics is a fierce commitment to family and to claiming and remembering history, both personal and cultural. Throughout the collection, there is striking and beautiful imagery and there are provocative connections made. Some of the poems are meditative, some mournful, some quietly angry; many portray love in its many varieties. All brim with the life force. The poems, and the book, are incandescent.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Do you ever feel that you “should” read a certain book? Whether it is a classic that you somehow never got around to reading, or a current book that everyone is talking about, do you experience a nagging feeling that you are somehow negligent in not reading that book or those books? I have often felt this as well. In the past, especially during college, grad school, and the decade or so after that, I often read books because they were assigned, or because I felt that as an educated person, I should read them. And I am very glad I read all those books – classics, international literature, feminist theory and fiction, and much more. But there is no way to keep up. Although throughout my whole reading life, I have read about 100 books a year, there are of course thousands more out there -- older books and the constant onslaught of new ones. Once in a while someone will assume that I have read a certain book that is being much talked of, and express surprise that I have not. But it boils down to this: we all have to choose what we spend our reading time on. And we each have our own standards and reasons for choosing what we choose. And as I have gotten older, I have gained a certain freedom from the pressure of “I should read that book.” Now I read pretty much just what I want to read. Even when I feel small pangs of the “I should” feeling, I am increasingly adept at telling myself “but I just don’t feel like it,” and ignoring the book. There is never a shortage of books that I do want to read.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Of COURSE no current writer can even touch the hem of Jane Austen’s gown. But writers keep trying to enter Austen’s world, with their prequels, sequels, and alternate versions of her novels. And some of us who love Austen’s novels keep reading these versions, hoping against hope that they will provide a new way to connect to Austen’s original work. They always, it goes without saying, disappoint. But there are degrees of disappointment. I have to say that English novelist Jo Baker’s new novel, “Longbourn” (Knopf, 2013) is a much-better-than-average Austen-related work. As Austen followers well know, Longbourn is the name of the house where the main characters in “Pride and Prejudice” live. The focus of this new novel is on the servants in this house, and their parallel lives during the course of the events described in “Pride and Prejudice.” This is no “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey”; the house is far smaller, and the servants’ lives are much drabber and harder, or at least harder than the portrayals in those two television shows. The novel opens with the housemaid Sarah’s doing the laundry, with all the miserable details of scrubbing and cleaning the clothing for a family with five daughters. “Washday could not be avoided, but the weekly purification of the household’s linen was nonetheless a dismal prospect for Sarah. The air was sharp at four thirty in the morning, when she started work. The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilblains flared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail. A long day to be got through, and this was just the very start of it” (p. 3). We learn of Sarah’s background and dreams, and of those of the other servants: Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the child Polly, and the mysterious Joseph Smith who is taken on as a footman, and who turns out to have a secret prior connection with the household. The Bennet family is generally kind to the servants, if occasionally thoughtless; there is love and support among the servants; and there are some happy events as well. But there is no getting around the drudgery of the work to be done. Meanwhile the events of the Bennets’ lives go on in the background, in this “inside out” version of the story. Interestingly, Elizabeth Bennet is portrayed as less lively and witty, and more worried and sometimes muted, than in the original novel. “Longbourn” is well written, and is a good reminder of the lives of the majority of the English people at the time, those who were not in the upper class. So, unlike in the case of some other Austen-connected novels, I am glad to have read “Longbourn.” But as with those other cases, the final impression we are left with is that no one can hold the proverbial candle to the real thing, the original masterpiece, “Pride and Prejudice.”
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Most of us who were budding feminists in the late 1960s and early 1970s remember reading the amazing 1962 novel "The Golden Notebook." It was one of those breakthrough books of that time period that we eagerly read, hungry for the stories that laid bare the lives of women who wanted more in life than what they were then allowed. Its author, Doris Lessing, died two days ago, on November 17, 2013, at the age of 94. She was born in Iran to British subjects, lived in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and then moved to London, where she lived the rest of her life. Her work was widely recognized and praised, and she was awarded many prizes, culminating in the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. She was only the 11th woman to win that honor. At the time of her Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy praised her work and its impact, and in particular noted that "The Golden Notebook" was "a pioneering work" that "belongs to the handful of books that influenced the 20th Century view of the male-female relationship." Interestingly, Lessing herself, being a very individualistic writer who didn't want to be categorized, didn't necessarily agree with some feminist views, or with being labeled a feminist. But her work, once out in the world, has been vastly influential. She wrote some 30 novels, several volumes of short stories, countless essays and reviews, and more. In later years she wrote science fiction, and although -- as regular readers of this blog know -- I am not a fan of science fiction, I know that many readers are passionate about that work. Of course, as with all good science fiction, it goes far beyond entertainment into astute commentary on society. I will end by urging interested readers to read Lessing's Nobel Prize lecture (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2007/lessing-lecture_en.html)(if this link doesn't work,just Google it), in which she passionately and beautifully advocates for and speaks about the importance of books and reading, the hunger that even poor and uneducated people have for books, the great legacy of storytelling, and the power of literature to feed people's minds and to make a difference in this difficult, complicated world.
Friday, November 15, 2013
I have a trivial complaint about some matters that are small annoyances, but nonetheless annoyances. I love the magazine Vanity Fair, and have been subscribing to it for many years. But sometimes I take a while to get to my latest issues, because of the following: 1. The issues are so thick that the pages don't bend back and over easily, making them just a little bit awkward to read. I actually go through before I read an issue and rip out many of the ads, especially the ones on extra-thick paper. 2. The layout is cluttered. 3. Worst of all, in my view, lines of text are often printed over pictures or other colored backgrounds, making the print harder to read. OK, these are small things, but I do feel a pinprick of annoyance every time I read Vanity Fair. No, I won't switch over to reading it on an e-reader; I am still not quite converted to those. And no, I won't stop reading it -- Vanity Fair is way too much fun to read, with its irresistible combination of serious stories and high-toned gossip.